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By: ASHLEY SCOBY
For A.J. Legree and many of UK’s other wide receivers this year, it’s all mental.
Catching passes may seem like a simple and routine concept for any football player calling himself a wideout, but issues with dropping the ball have plagued Kentucky football for several seasons. This year, however, players and the new coaching staff are working to make sure Kentucky fans aren’t throwing their hands in the air as a good spiral hits the turf.
After every practice, all the wideouts have to go over to the sidelines to start catching something a little more difficult to get a hand on: tennis balls. And not just tennis balls being lightly lofted from a coach, but tennis balls from a rapid-fire machine. The goal is to help the receivers with hand-eye coordination, especially in “think-fast” situations.
The problem with dropped passes was attributed to a mentality, rather than any physical problems. At least that’s what sophomore Legree had to say about the subject.
“I think it’s more of a mental thing than anything, thinking too much,” he said. “I know with me sometimes I’ll drop a pass and they tell me all the time, ‘It’s mental.’ They tell me I have good hands and I have confidence in my hands, just sometimes I’m thinking too much.”
Thinking too much was an opportunity Legree only got a few times last year. Although he showed flashes of potential and athleticism last season, Legree himself said he was disappointed with the playing time he received. He totaled 12 catches last year for 113 yards, with 3 of those catches and 47 yards coming against Vanderbilt.
The game-time experiences he did get, however, are a benefit to him now.
“I think when I got in and played last year, I caught the ball pretty well,” he said. “It’s always room for improvement and I don’t think last year will be a bother because (it’s) a new leaf now. It’s the Stoops era so we’re looking to go up.”
If comments from the coaching staff are any indication, Legree’s playing time does indeed look to go up in the coming season. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown listed Legree as a top guy in the wideout rotation, along with Demarco Robinson, Daryl Collins and the tight end corps.
“The thing that’s encouraging about A.J. Legree in particular is…there’s not a kid on our team that’s outworking him,” Brown said. “A lot of his game is mental. He’s got to believe he’s a good player. He’s got really good talent. He’s a kid that we would have recruited. There’s no question. He can run, he’s strong, he sticks his foot in the ground. He made some big plays in the scrimmage which was encouraging… It’s about routine plays. It’s not necessarily about great plays. He just has to stack routine plays back to back.”
As a unit, this year’s bunch of wide receivers look to make those routine plays. Catching passes is a basic concept of football, and they are looking to make that ability second nature. Snatching tennis balls is just one step to that process.
The coaching staff plays a part in getting to the players mentally, too: They have made it clear that every position on the field is an open competition and whoever shows the most promise and production will see the field the most.
“The depth chart here is fluid,” Brown said.
With that in mind, receivers like Legree are continuing to stay late at practice to work on the skillset they have to have to be able to play in this offense. Although that may take time, Brown says that is expected in football.
“Offense always takes a while because it’s 11 guys that have to perform on every play,” he said. “On defense, you can have one guy make an extraordinary play and the other 10 don’t do their job but it could still be a loss. On offense, you’ve got to have 11 guys functioning together.”
That goal of functioning together will continue to be a focus, both mentally and physically, especially for the wideouts. At the end of the day though, Brown was confident with how the unit would progress throughout spring and fall camp.
“When we have to play down at LP Field,” he said. “We’ll be able to catch it.”